Our vans rolled down the narrow roads in Connellsville on a gorgeous sunny Friday morning. We passed the quaint weathered-brick storefronts of downtown that couldn’t have been open for more than a couple hours; Atkins Music Center, the Connellsville Canteen, Pats Bridal Boutique all lined the main streets of the town. We took our turn across the Youghiogheny River, over the stagnant cargo train parked beneath the tracks, and arrived at our destination. Truth be told, I couldn’t really get the hang of pronouncing the word “Youghiogheny” properly, but I’d slowly improve on that throughout the day. We disembarked the vans in Connellsville just outside Youghiogheny Opalescent Glass Factory under blue skies and the mild warmth of the early autumn sun.
As we walked through the wide-open doors of the warehouse, my eyes adjusted to the light. Before us stood rows upon rows packed with vibrant yet opaque sheets and slits of glass. Tristan Triggs, the owner of the factory that his father had passed onto him, and Cheryl Babbit, the floor manager of the factory, gave us warm introductions and led us to the back to show us the glassmaking process. We watched in the heavy heat of the backside of the warehouse as men scooped molten material from the scolding hot furnaces with long ladles, with the strings from overflow trailing behind them. We watched as one man worked diligently, kneading and pressing the glowing orange mass on the table in front of him and sliding it through rolling pins to be stretched and flattened. The thin sheet would lose its radiance, only to reveal blue and green hues streaking across the surface. After some clean cuts are made to the edges, the sheet slowly moves through an enormous machine for cooling and further pressing.
Triggs and Babbit would tell us that despite the slow decline of the town and the ongoing pandemic, the glass factory was doing better than ever. As one of the only opalescent glass manufacturers in the country, Youghiogheny would have no trouble finding customers, shipping across the state, country, and globe. They saw an uptick as many who were trapped indoors quarantining were now turning to hobbies like craft-making to pass the time, and Youghiogheny could help provide an escape. It appears that, for the time being, business was booming.
The same could be said for the Creativity Center just across the river. Ann Nicholson and Shirley Rosenberger, co-owners of the art store, happily showed us around, highlighting some of the 130 artists who are given the opportunity to show off their works there. The atmosphere was welcoming and jovial as a steady stream of local artists flowed through the front doors of the shop, picking up orders and dropping off orders of their own. Shelves were packed with paintings, jewelry, knick-knacks, and knit plushies, each with tiny prices tags marked with sensible prices. In the back, four women sat around a table, assembling tiny Christmas tree sculptures. Soon, they would be doubling over, laughing at a joke cracked by the oldest of the group. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Connellsville is its emphasis on helping local artists. All across town, many of the grey facades of buildings have been painted over with beautiful murals.
A clear focal point for Connellsville was the Connellsville Canteen, a building that served as a WW2 Museum, café, and otherwise informal meeting place for the town. A vast collection of artifacts from one of the largest conflicts in history decorated the walls of the canteen’s main stage room, each telling a more incredible story than the last. A few even had scannable QR codes, where visitors could listen to the stories of those who served from the people who lived through it. We sat for lunch with Mayor Greg Lincoln and chatted about the town, the building, and how it came to be. Only through the dedication and hard work of the members of the Connellsville community, like Michael Edwards and Daniel Cocks of the Fayette County Cultural Trust, did the Canteen become a reality.
However, there is a reason we went to Connellsville. Unfortunately, for all that the town does provide, it severely lacks in other areas. The lack of job and economic opportunities is glaring, as there is little incentive for people to move in. Organizations like the Connellsville Redevelopment Authority have made significant investments in enhancing the trails, parks, and streets of Connellsville, and their work should not go unnoticed, but there is still plenty of work to be done to stimulate business growth and other forms of economic revitalization. Many of the storefronts closed early on weekdays, most before 4PM. On Sundays, not even the local grocery store is open. Moreover, this major shortcoming is the reason why many who grew up in Connellsville—and more broadly, Fayette County—don’t stay. This is especially true for the younger generations, who are either forced to move away to make a living or go to school but are unable to find a way to apply that to a career in town, inevitably moving to greener pastures. While I hesitate to use the term “brain drain,” due to the negative connotations that it may unfairly apply to the smart, hardworking, kind people who do choose to stay, it is virtually impossible to ignore the significant barriers to growth Connellsville has faced for decades. Plainly put, there isn’t much to do in Connellsville. Samantha Nicholson, a young member of the Private Industry Council and recent college graduate, told us about how there weren’t many options for leisure in town. There are not many bars, restaurants, or other venues are around to attract and keep young people happy. The issue of keeping young people in the area is one that is very complex and caused by many different factors, but it certainly does not help matters that one of the only pastimes is, in Samantha’s words, “going home from work, watching TV, and having a beer.”
With all, the people of Connellsville are kind, welcoming, and relatively happy. You can say plenty of things about Connellsville, but you cannot say that they don’t care about their town—their home. The work that they have put into reimagining and rebuilding their town is remarkable, and I hope that this little town can get back on its feet soon. In fact, recent developments like the new hotel in town and the proposed brewery by the trail could serve as boons for economic revitalization. As for us, we will need to begin interviewing members of the Connellsville Redevelopment, as well as set up meetings with members and students at the local school district to discuss how we can help encourage the youth to stay could prove invaluable. I believe that taking all of our research thus far, analyzing it as a team at the next meeting, and discussing and outlining our course of action is the best next step.
Prior to our trip down to Connellsville, I was not sure what to expect. As we left for Pittsburgh, the skies had greyed as a storm had begun to roll in. Exhausted from the day, we all sat in silence—some fast asleep, some still thinking about the conversations we had and the people we had met. Still, with cloudy skies, I came away feeling like brighter days are ahead for Connellsville.